csaTerence Howard dominates every moment of the new film Hustle & Flow with the intensity that Robert DeNiro left behind decades ago. As the hustler-turning-rapper DJay, Howard delivers the kind of performance that will have real film lovers screaming bloody murder when it’s overlooked at Oscar time.

Hustle & Flow is one of those rare films that takes a formula and transcends it – it makes you forget that there was even a formula there in the first place. At heart it’s a classic underdog story and a straight ahead music creation procedural, but writer/director Craig Brewer infuses it with more meaning and passion than the rickety frame of “loser overcomes” should ever be able to handle.

DJay is a small time hustler, pimping a tiny stable of hos and occasionally moving a little weed. But he’s getting old, and he’s getting sick of sitting all day in his un-air conditioned car waiting for tricks to pick up his girls. His father died young years ago, and DJay wonders if that won’t be his fate too, and how many years he has left. One day he finds out that famous rapper Skinny Black is a hometown boy, and he’s coming back for the 4th of July. Inspired, DJay decides that he can be an MC too – he’s always had a way with words and his head is constantly filled with a booming beat.

He finds an old high school friend, Key, who has become a recording engineer. Key has a wife and a steady job recording court depositions and the like, but it’s not everything he wants. He records gospel music on the side, and he dreams bigger yet. DJay bursts into his ordered life and using his hustler’s skills, his words, he drags Key into his scheme. They set up a crude recording studio in Djay’s house, roping in white boy Shelby to lay down the beats. The goal is to come up with a demo filled with unbeatable tracks and hand it to Skinny Black at the 4th of July party Djay’s managed to get himself invited to.

Again, on the surface, Hustle & Flow is a standard story, but there’s so much more going on here than any plot synopsis can capture. The broad strokes may sound like Eminem’s 8 Mile, but if 8 Mile were Rocky, Hustle & Flow is Raging Bull. DJay is the Jake LaMotta at the center of the story, a dark and troubled man who should be repellent but is strangely magnetic.

Brewer understands that and plays with it. He lets us get comfortable with DJay, to come to feel for him as a damaged man, and then he pulls the rug out from under us. One masterful scene has DJay shopping for a new microphone for the home studio, accompanied by Nola, his white, corn-rowed ho. The mic is too expensive, but the store owner obviously digs Nola, so DJay arranges a trade. It’s a thrill to see him overcome the system that’s stacked against him using his skills and the tools at his disposal, and Brewer plays the scene for a laugh – until Nola comes out of the store, furious and crying. We’ve become complicit with DJay’s disregard for the humanity of these women and now we’re ashamed. And it’s a great moment in a film that’s celebrating a pimp, a moment where we’re faced with what being a pimp means, how he degrades people.

It’s a testament to Howard that he can maintain a level of warmth after a scene like that, or one where he kicks a woman and her screaming infant out of his house. Some people seem shocked by the things he does (and it’s important to note that DJay’s not violent, per se, although there is a scene where he’s pushed to the edge of his dignity and there’s a shoot out. His violence is emotional and verbal, and is what makes him a great rapper), but that’s just because they expect a film like this to be about a guy who is at heart a good man, and I don’t think DJay is that. People also expect a movie like this to redeem the man, but Hustle & Flow is ballsy enough to not go that route – DJay is left at a place where redemption is finally possible, but not even probable.

Howard is surrounded by actors who elevate him and the film, and they’re almost all actors who I would normally scoff at. Anthony Anderson is dynamic as Key, bringing a little lightness to the proceedings but never comic relief. DJ Qualls’ Shelby is the same – he’s funny and he has funny bits, but he’s not a joke. Each of these characters has their own reality and identity, and just as none of us ever feel like the we’re the punchline of a movie, these characters are treated as complete people.

The women in the film are tremendous. Taryn Manning is Nola, a country girl come to the big city who fell into Djay’s employ. She’s empty for the most part, and emptiness that probably has a long and tragic story, but Manning also keeps a small part of her sparkling – you could even argue that the film is actually about Nola finding her identity. Paula Jai Parker’s Lexus is a more difficult character. Depending on how you feel about DJay she’s either a nasty harpy or the voice of reason – the film wisely doesn’t come down on either side, and no matter how you feel about her the scene where she and her baby are kicked out of DJay’s house is shattering.

Finally there’s Taraji P Henson as Sug, a ho on pregnancy leave whose sweet voice becomes the hook for one of DJay’s tracks. Henson is luminous and delicate, almost too much so to be believable as a hooker. But she’s integral in the path that leads DJay to a place where he can decide whether or not to redeem himself, and Henson nails her as a loving woman whose life has gone desperately wrong.

The bit players are strong as well. Ludacris comes in at the end for a bullish, scene stealing turn as Skinny Black. It’s the second time he’s worked with Howard onscreen this year – the first was in the carjacking scene in the underwhelming Crash – and once again the two are thrust into what is essentially a short two-hander. The actors bounce off each other dynamically, and Ludacris cements the promise he showed in the earlier film. If he can keep clear of the crappy action films that so many of his peer gravitate to, Ludacris may end up being the best raptor of the bunch.

But the strongest supporting character is the city of Memphis. Brewer’s portrait of his home town is unflinching and honest, gritty and sweaty. It’s easy to show off the best parts of a city and make it seem vibrant, but Brewer takes the challenge of showing us the seedy and decrepit and making it feel like a real place. The city also gives the film a sense of a separate identity – it would have been easy enough to set the movie in the over-familiar ghettoes of Los Angeles, but Memphis has a unique look and feeling.

And music scene. The kind of hip hop that DJay makes is called crunk, a peculiarly Southern variant that’s molasses-thick and influenced by the local drug of choice, syrup. It’s come to my attention that there are people who still don’t like rap music, and I have to admit to being baffled by that. It just makes no sense to me, and the reasons I get when I ask people why they don’t like it – they don’t use real instruments, they only rap about violence and drugs, among others – come across as sheer ignorance of the art form. Hustle & Flow presents a great primer on how songs can be constructed, and guess what? It’s not terribly different from a couple of dudes on guitars jamming around in the garage until they find a song.

When done right in a movie it’s exhilarating to see people create, and here it’s exhilarating to see DJay find his voice. His unique abilities as a hustler, his way with words, kept him separate from others before as he manipulated them– but now the music offers him a way to communicate his experiences and feelings. It really helps that Brewer has turned to Memphis rapper Al Kapone to write DJay’s tracks – Kapone gives us convincing lyrics melded with the kinds of beats that earmark Whoop That Trick and especially It’s Hard Out Here As A Pimp as real possible hits.

Hustle & Flow is a terrific achievement for Brewer. It’s not his first film – that was the tiny DV indie The Poor and Hungry – but it is his first film that most people will see. It’s a major work, an announcement from someone with an eye for beauty amidst squalor and an ear for the very real cadences of very specific slang and dialect. What’s excited and sets Brewer apart from his peer David Gordon Green, who also works in peculiar Southern idioms, is Brewer’s ability to make his film accessible. Green’s work, like his latest Undertow, is fascinating and beautiful but often impenetrable. Brewer doesn’t give up his dedication to reality and character but he does give us an in to the picture, and he does make the film sail along engagingly. Hustle & Flow is a rare movie that can be savored but also can be just enjoyed – it’s a meal or a snack depending on your appetite.

Of course there’s room for populism in a film and then there’s flirting with disaster – Brewer comes close on a couple of occasions to derailing the whole thing by skirting the edges of cliché and convention, but he always manages to keep things reined in. Hustle & Flow goes places that would make me roll my eyes in other films, but here the deft handling of story and character makes it work. It’s been a long time since I wanted a movie to end happily as much as I wanted this one to end happily. And Brewer understands that, and gives us just enough happiness and possibility without betraying the grim realities he’s mirroring.

Hustle & Flow is an adrenal shock to the system, the kind of film that can get you jazzed about seeing movies after the dregs of 2005 have dragged you down, that can get you interested in picking up the soundtrack pronto and that, most of all, can get you to become a huge and dedicated fan of Terence Howard. Howard does all his own raps in this film – if the Academy wanted to show that it was a modern thing, we would see Howard not only on the stage at the Kodak in 2006 getting a Best Actor award, we’d see him performing a Best Original Song nominee as well. It’s a long shot, just like Djay’s dreams, but it’s something to hope for.

9.2 out of 10